Sweat streams from Mahiro Takano as the 13-year-old karate belt with an adult man almost twice the size triggers blows and ends with a bloodthirsty roar and then a dainty bow.
The dainty schoolgirl is used to beating about her weight – since she started karate in kindergarten, she has done a lot to raise the profile of Japanese martial arts, which will make its Olympic debut next year.
But when Tokyo starts 2020 in a year, little Mahiro will be too young to compete.
“It was my dream to win an Olympic gold medal since childhood,” Mahiro told AFP after training in her hometown of Nagaoka, a two-hour high-speed train north of Tokyo.
“It’s sad that the Olympic Games are coming to Tokyo and I can’t participate because of my age.”
Mahiro is the fresh face of a form of warrior struggle that goes back centuries to what is Okinawa today, in subtropical southern Japan.
She has helped put karate on the map in Japan – where it is traditionally overshadowed by judo and kendo – by appearing in commercials since she was a toddler and an ambassador for sport.
But Mahiro insists that her Olympic heartache in Tokyo will make her stronger.
“It gives me the incentive to compete in future Olympics when I’m taller,” said the karate pin-up.
“I will be watching the Tokyo Olympics and learning from the best in the world to be ready when my time comes.
– Waiting game –
But Mahiro could hardly wait to show her explosive technique on the Olympic stage.
Karate was removed from the list of four sports recommended by the 2024 Paris Olympics, including surfing, skateboarding, climbing and breakdancing, all approved by the International Olympic Committee.
Mahiro is a 1.46 metre long bundle of energy and has won six national primary school titles in a row.
Paired with a 43-year-old man during training, she is a whirlwind of eternal movement.
Ponytail flickers from side to side as she ducks under her clumsy opponent and unleashes her own blows, Mahiro’s face distorts into an image of intense concentration and borders on rage.
“I’m not trying to look scary,” she said with a giggle. “But when I concentrate, my face looks like this, of course.”
For Mahiro, the bigger they are, the harder they fall.
“It doesn’t matter how big they are,” she smiled, “I just give him everything I have.
Mahiro prefers the stylistic “kata” form of the mostly solo karate over the “kumite”, which plays off the fighters against each other.
“Karate makes me stronger and teaches me better manners,” said Mahiro, who followed her older brother into karate when she was four.
“It helped me develop good habits for later life.
Takako Kikuchi, who trains Mahiro, knew from day one that her model student was something special – and admits that despite her size, she can be a little intimidating.
– “Somewhat frightening” –
“From the beginning she was different – she was not the average four-year-old,” Kikuchi said.
“Mahiro shamed adults with her fighting spirit.
“She becomes another person – it can be a little scary,” Kikuchi added laughing. “She’s a real fighter, but she’s also very modest and willing to learn.”
Kikuchi was saddened by the exclusion of Karate from the 2024 Olympics in Paris, so it became a tough fight to be reinstated for the 2028 Games in Los Angeles.
“It has just achieved Olympic status, which is a great opportunity to raise the profile of the sport in Japan,” she said.
“It’s a shock to everyone involved in karate.”
When Mahiro packed her karate equipment, Kikuchi added, “Karate that creates character – I’m sure it will return to the Olympics.”
When Kikuchi was lost from sight, Mahiro revealed a secret method of polishing her Kata technique, which her Sensei may not approve of.
“I imagine an imaginary opponent in front of me – like my brother,” she whispered, “because he’s a real pain in the ass.”
Away from the karate dojo, Mahiro says she’s just a normal student who enjoys chatting with classmates, reading and listening to Justin Bieber and the Korean boy band BTS.
“But I love karate more,” she said, “so I’ll keep training hard so I can come to the Olympics one day.”